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Understanding Elbow Pain - Part 2: Pathology

Posted May 12 2010 5:16am

In case you missed Part 1 of this series (Functional Anatomy), you can check it out HERE .

Elbow issues can be really tricky at times from a diagnostic standpoint. Someone with medial elbow pain could have pronator and/or flexor (a.k.a. Golfer’s Elbow) soft tissue issues, ulnar nerve irritation or hypermobility, ulnar collateral ligament issues, or a stress fracture of the medial epicondyle – or a combination of two or more of these factors. All of these potential issues are “condensed” into an area that might be a whopping one square inch in size. Throw lateral elbow pain (commonly extensor overuse conditions - a.k.a. “Tennis Elbow” - and bony compression issues) and posterior (underside) pain in the mix, and you’ve got a lot of other stuff to confound things.

lateralepicondyle1

To make matters more complex, it’s not an easy diagnosis. The only way to recognize soft tissue restrictions is to get in there and feel around – and even when something is detected, it takes a skilled clinician with excellent palpation skills to determine just what is “balled up” and what nerves it may affect (especially if there is referred pain).

In these situations, I’ll stick with the terms “soft tissue dysfunction” and “tendinopathy” or “tendinosis” to stay away from the diffuse and largely incorrect assumption of “elbow tendinitis.” We’re all used to hearing “Tennis Elbow” (lateral) and “Golfer’s Elbow” (medial), and to be honest, I’d actually say that these are better terms than “epicondylitis,” as issues are more degenerative (“-osis”) than inflammatory (“-itis”).

golfers

Ulnar nerve pain patterns can present at or below the elbow (pinky and ring finger tingling/numbness are common findings), and may originate as far up as the neck ( e.g., thoracic outlet syndrome, brachial plexus abnormalities, rheumatologic issues, among others ) and can be extremely challenging to diagnosis. A doctor may use x-rays to determine if there is some osseous contribution to nerve impingement or a MRI to check on the presence of something other than bone (such as a cyst) as the cause of the compression. Nerve conduction tests may be ordered. Manual repositioning to attempt to elicit symptoms can also give clues as to whether (and where) the nerve may be “stuck” or whether it may be tracking out of course independent of soft tissue restrictions.

Childress reported that about 16% of the population – independent of gender, age, and athletic participation – has enough genetic laxity in the supporting ligaments at the elbow to allow for asymptomatic ulnar nerve “dislocation” over the medial epicondyle during elbow flexion. In the position of elbow flexion, the ulnar nerve is most exposed (and it’s why you get the “funny bone” pain when you whack your elbow when it’s bent, but not when it’s straight). Ulnar nerve transposition surgeries has been used in symptomatic individuals who have recurrent issues in this regard, and it consists of moving the ulnar nerve from its position behind the medial epicondyle to in front of it.

ulnarnerve

An ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) issue may seem simple to diagnosis via a combination of manual testing and follow-up diagnostic imaging (there are several options, none of which are perfect), but it can actually be difficult to “separate out” in a few different capacities.

First, because the UCL attaches on medial epicondyle (albeit posteriorly), an injury may be overlooked acutely because it can be perceived as soft tissue restrictions or injuries.  The affected structures would typically be several of the wrist flexors as they attach via the common flexor tendon, or the pronator teres.

Second, partial thickness tears of the UCL can be seen in pitchers who are completely asymptomatic, so it may be an incidental finding. Moreover, we have had several guys come our way with partial thickness UCL tears who have been able to rehab and return to full function without surgery. While the UCL may be partially torn and irritated, the pain may actually be coming to “threshold” because of muscular weakness, poor flexibility, or poor tissue quality.

Medial epicondyle stress fractures can be easily diagnosed with x-rays, but outside of a younger population, they can definitely be overlooked. For instance, I had a pro baseball player – at the age of 23 – sent to us for training by his agent last year as he waiting for a medial epicondyle fracture to heal.

stressfracture

While these are the “big players” on the injury front – particularly in a throwing population – you can also see a number of other conditions, including soft tissue tears (flexor tendons, in particular), loose bodies (particularly posteriorly, where bone chips can come off the olecranon process), and calcification of ligaments. So, long story short, diagnosis can be a pain in the butt – and usually it’s a combination of multiple factors.  At a presentation last weekend, Dr. Lance Oh commented on how 47% of elbow pain cases present with subluxating medial triceps (”snapping elbow”), but this is rarely an issue by itself.

That’s one important note. However, there is a much more important note – and that is that many rehabilitation programs are outrageously flawed in that they only focus on strengthening and stretching the muscles acting at the elbow and wrist.

As I’ll outline in Part 3 of this series, a ton of the elbow issues we see in throwers occur secondary to issues at the glenohumeral and scapulothoracic joints. And, more significantly, not providing soft tissue work in these regions grossly ignores the unique anatomical structure of the elbow and forearm and its impact on tendon quality. If you’ve got elbow issues, make sure you’ve got someone doing good soft tissue work on you. Just to give you a little visual of what I’m thinking, I got a video of Nathaniel (Nate) Tiplady, D.C. (a great manual therapist who works out of Cressey Performance a few days a week) performing some Graston Technique® followed by Active Release ® on my forearms.  Here’s the former; take note of the sound of his work on the tissues; the instruments actually give the practitioner tactile (and even audible) feedback in areas of significant restrictions.  You’ll see that it is particularly valuable for covering larger surface areas (in this case, the flexors of the anteromedial aspect of the forearm):

As for the ART, you’ll see that it’s more focal in nature, and involves taking the tissue in question from shortened to lengthened with direct pressure.

As you can probably tell (even without seeing me sweat or hearing me curse), it doesn’t feel great while he’s doing it – but the area feels like a million bucks when he’s done.

While there is no substitute for having a qualified manual therapist work on you, using The Stick on one’s upper and lower arms can be pretty helpful.

More on that in Part 3…

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